The Mummies of Cladh Hallan

In 2001, archaeologists working on the island of South Uist in the Hebrides discovered several curious skeletons. They were flexed in an unusual manner and buried, rather than cremated, which was the fashion during the period that produced them. The first body was that of a man who died around 1600 BC but who had been buried some 600 years later. The second body was identified as that of a woman who died around 1300 BC and was buried at the same time as the man. Analysis showed that both bodies had been submerged in a peat bog to mummify them.

Cladh Hallan "woman".

 Things began to get weird when it was discovered that the first corpse had a jaw and a legbone  that belonged to people other than the rest of the body. These three individuals had died at different periods of time, centuries apart.

The second skeleton seemed at first to be from only one individual but DNA analysis showed that, just as in the first mummy, parts of three different corpses were assembled into one. Oh, and the skull belonged to a male. The man’s canine teeth had been removed from his head after death and placed in the mummy’s hands.

These bodies were mummified for reasons we can only guess. Perhaps they were on display, perhaps kept in some kind of case, perhaps they were brought out for ceremonial display once in a while. Current thinking is that they are part of an ancestor-worship concept, maybe being made up of cadavers from the same kinship line. On the other hand, maybe when something fell off the corpse, the priests just replaced it with whatever they could find. “Mummy’s lost a jaw, Jim.” “Damn! Well, stick another in the bog and we’ll soon have him right!”

So, after all the work entailed in putting these things together and hanging onto to them for centuries, why suddenly bury them? Here it should be noted that these two mummies were not the only corpses interred under the floors of the buildings of Cladh Hallan.

South Uist was first populated around 2000 BC. It is a treeless, windswept hunk of rock whose only resources are peat and shellfish. Human beings used the first, ignored the second. There are no shell middens from this period on South Uist. People raised barley in fields right next to the houses in soil they created from sand, ashes, and household waste. They also raised cattle and sheep. Their basic food was probably barley eaten with milk, though they also ate lamb and veal — by-products of wool and dairy farming.

The region where the houses are located is the  machair, a sandy strip near the beach that was constantly threatened with inundation by ever-shifting sand dunes. Why would anyone choose to live here at a time when many desirable locations were available on a sparsely populated planet? In fact the machair was a chosen area for many Hebridean settlers in the Bronze Age. Perhaps the isolation from belligerent neighbours was a draw and the lack of valuable resources meant there was no motive for invasion. 

Cladh Hallan from 1600 feet

The people of Cladh Hallan belonged to the Beaker Culture peoples, a broad classification that has to do with shared taste in ceramics and tells us nothing about, say, a shared religion. They were Bronze Age folk but the people at Uist probably had precious little of the stuff and commonly used flint axes. They must have given quite a bit in wool for the single bracelet that was found here. Still, by the end of the period these buildings were used they were bringing in enough metal to make some tools or implements since fragments of clay used for casting have been found in the center building.
Cladh Hallan had at least four, and possibly seven, buildings. Three have been excavated so far. The center house had the body of a girl about thirteen years of age buried within. Not much information is so far available from her skeleton. The south house had an infant buried under the floor. This child had not been mummified but had died quite some time before being buried. The north house contained the mummies.

Diagram of the houses

Each house had gone through several re-buildings. On re-building, sometimes the entire building would be shifted, new walls, a new roof, and a new floor was laid over the old. Most times there was some kind of sacrifice involved. Besides the humans, skeletons of sheep and dogs have been found. Sometimes valuable objects, such as the bronze bracelet or stone axes, were tossed into the construction — or deconstruction, as it may have been. Also, pottery seems to have been smashed at these building rituals. The central house has eight floors — it was re-built seven times. It is the structure inhabited for the longest time from this period in Britain.
The houses took a huge effort to build. A great circle of earth was excavated, lined with stone, filled with clean sand, then dug out again to the level of the earth or previous dwelling floor. Walls were of packed sand. Roofs were made of turf held up by precious wooden supports obtained as driftwood or through trade.
The circular houses faced east and the interior space moved from a cooking area in the south-east clockwise around to stones marking the place where the body was interred in the northeast sector. The stones were not placed as a covering over the grave but more as a barrier or boundary to the west of the graves. All of this indicates a sort of life-to-death, day-to-night progression.
Earlier structures before the roundhouses were built seem to have been more like longhouses, u-shaped structures open at one end. But little is known of this since evidence from this period was destroyed by sand-quarrying and the removal of stones for a modern cemetary wall. It was during the longhouse time that the mummies were preserved and venerated, say 1900 – 1200 BC. Around 1000 BC they were buried under the new round buildings.
What happened then? Was there some sort of religious upheaval resulting in the casting down of the ancestors and breaking of pots? Or perhaps a new lineage or foreign clan decided to remove these reminders of the old order and bury them.
After 400 BC, these houses were abandoned. People moved on to other places leaving the old settlement to be covered by sand that preserved their empty houses.
Of all the questions connected with these mummies — and there are many more questions than answers — the one that I find myself pondering is: why put the eye teeth in the mummy’s hands? Was this another way to unite these two bodies, one male, one female? Or was there some other ritual signifigance? And, if someone from that time and place told me why, would I be able to comprehend his reasoning? As the poet Chris Houston said, “There is nothing stranger than another man’s religion.”
These links were used earlier but I want to repeat them: on Cladh Hallan, on the archaeology and mummification.

One comment on “The Mummies of Cladh Hallan

  1. zeknit says:

    I enjoyed learning about these curiously double preserved mummies. I think there is a new series of stories just waiting to be plucked from the bogs here Mike.

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